Arthur Schwartz: 1924-2006

by Eric Schwartz and Kate Zeiss

art_schwartz.jpgAs a young teenager, Arthur Schwartz was arrested for handing out pro-labor literature. At 17, he joined the military to fight fascism in WWII and survived 12 D-Day invasions in the South Pacific. As a young lieutenant, Arthur challenged a commander — and congressional candidate — who had jeopardized the flotilla in a move designed to gain public recognition. Art was swiftly discharged.

So when sheriff’s deputies tried to remove Art from the Goleta Farmers Market, Art’s undaunted reply was, “Let me get this straight. You are going to arrest an 80-year-old combat veteran on Memorial Day for registering Americans to vote?” They went away.

When I was 9 years old, my dad and I passed a homeless veteran begging on the street. Art didn’t hand him any change, but took him to dinner with us, explaining to me that he had the same right to dignity as anyone. He should sit with us.

Many will remember my father as a wellspring of willingness to respond to the evolving needs of our community and world, promoting the work of environmental, peace, and justice organizations. You may recognize him as the smiling and outspoken man whose irreverent style engaged (and sometimes enraged) passersby at the Green Party table at Farmers Markets for the past 10 years. With that mischievous twinkle in his eye, Art arranged a booth in every Farmers Market by representing numerous organizations, convincingly speaking for such diverse groups as Veterans for Peace, Health Care for All, the Green Party, and the Living Wage Coalition.

Art had participated in the fighting and seen the aftermath of WWII in the Pacific. His eyes were opened to the wanton killing of innocents and the corruption of senior officers and government officials. This became the seed of his activism and his commitment to educating youth about the realities of war. At Santa Barbara City College, Art recruited help from passing students to push a cart full of literature, stickers, buttons, and signs. He cheerily invited students to ask him questions and try their own theories out on him. Art’s spunk surprised some. “Do you want to come home in a body bag, or do you want to do something to change things?” he frequently challenged students.

While he maintained a solid antiwar stance, Art offered the utmost compassion to fellow veterans who came to his table. Many opposed his “peacenik” ideology and stopped by to challenge what they thought was unpatriotic. Art’s razor-sharp intellect unraveled their positions and exposed the horrific impact of U.S. wars, yet he extended to these veterans a genuine appreciation for the hardships they endured in combat.

When the Farmers Market tried to kick Art out (“He won’t negotiate,” complained one Market president), many went to bat for him, armed with the knowledge that our nation’s well-being rests upon individuals’ ability to publicly air their views. His presence at the market and on the steps of the Post Office for weekly peace vigils was as certain as the rising of the sun for so many years. His certainty about the importance of tabling served to hold the space for others to meet and discuss crucial ideas, reviving the time-honored tradition of village Market Days. People’s ideas of themselves expanded when stoked by Art’s vision of possibility — not only of a world holding promise and hope, but also of the ability to affect that change themselves. Art’s magnanimous character knew no class, gender, or age boundaries. While many disagreed with him — some strongly so — most had a soft spot for Art. I was amazed how he led people to identify and live by their convictions.

I was also struck that my father, at 80, had the energy, idealism, and optimism of a 20-year-old. As 2004 vice-presidential candidate Peter Camejo said, “We can learn from him to keep fighting for what we believe in, the way he did, relentlessly and directly. He’d set up a table at a street corner to reach one person at a time … while keeping his enthusiasm that in the end we will save our planet.” My father touched the lives of many with certainty, inspiration, a smile, and an occasional shove in the right direction.

Art certainly had rough edges that gained him some notoriety, but I had no idea how many people were positively affected by him until they began contacting me after his passing. “Art was a precious jewel in my life,” one wrote. “Wherever people gathered to create peace and justice, there was this wonderful man. His tireless insistence that justice never be compromised is a legacy to be passed on through our own work.”

“Art’s passing is a loss for all of us who still enjoy a person who lives out loud, in his own individual way, out there for the world to deal with,” recalled one businessman. “So few in our town, myself included, are willing to live our lives in bold, in honesty, authentic to our souls.”

A member of Veterans for Peace, Art spent Sunday afternoons at Arlington West. “He was so real, so unpretentious and insistent in his determination to steer his fellow man in the direction of their better angels,” one veteran told me. “Then, as silently as he had appeared, he would vanish without fanfare, disappearing into the Sunday crowd on the three-wheel bike he took such pride in.” Wes Roe experienced Art as a “tell-it-like-it-is man” whose passion had deep roots in his love: “He cared so much it hurt; it pained him to ever stay quiet.”

Art’s early-morning market presence, late-night political meetings, and organizing efforts were his primary and almost exclusive interests throughout the last 15 years of his life. But he also loved gardens and orchards. For two decades, my father and I planted and cared for thousands of fruit trees in orchards, and forest trees on reclaimed land in California and Oregon. At 78, Art moved to Friendship Manor retirement community, where he worked to turn their large grassy field into a sustainable organic garden, hoping to nourish the residents while engaging them in tending the earth. There he started his Friday night political film showings, which continue still.

The man was unstoppable in his devotion to justice and Green values. Because of this, it is now unusually difficult for many in the community to grasp that he is gone. Art oversaw the well-being of the community with the determination of a warrior and the warm benevolence of a true elder. May we continue in his footsteps.

Contributions in Art’s name can be made by increasing our own commitment to justice, peace, and the protection of the land and sea.

A celebration of Arthur’s life — including a screening of the film Sir! No Sir! — will be held on Sunday, August 27, at 5:30 p.m., at the Unitarian Society, 1535 Santa Barbara Street.

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